Christmas records can be a wallow in nostalgia and remind us of times past, which can both be a blessing and a curse. It’s a rare album that can sidestep the pitfalls of both false sentiment and forced good cheer to say something meaningful about the spirit of the season.
Coope, Simpson, Fraser and Freya have compiled an album that does just that. Hark Hark is an eclectic collection of fifteen pieces which range from the sacred to the secular and from the present to the past. Each track stands on its own but, when taken as a whole, makes for a very satisfying forty-five minutes listen.
The album starts off with a powerful version of the Sheffield Carol, While Shepherds which is sung, unaccompanied, to a tune from the Sacred Harp hymnal. This piece, full of striking harmonies, really shows off the quartet’s vocal talents.
This is immediately contrasted with Tom Lehrer’s satirical A Christmas Carol which shows that, even in the late 1950s there was concern about the commercialisation of the season. Lehrer’s version just has a piano accompaniment but Simpson’s ukulele playing is inspired and gives the song a music hall touch.
Please Let Me Sleep on Your Doorstep Tonight is a song by Bob Weston & Bert Lee. Although it’s a tale of selfishness the song has one of those great sing-along choruses so beloved of the music hall. It’s sung and played with relish by the whole band.
There’s lots of traditional songs on the album. Past 3 A-Clock is a carol set to the tune of London Waits and given new words by Simpson that turns it from a sacred to a secular piece. This acapella number talks of the cold of winter but looks forward to the coming of spring when days get longer.
The Owl is, possibly, the oldest song on the album. It’s taken from Thomas Ravenscroft’s Deuteromelia 7 published in 1609. It’s a happy song about the titular bird but is also a drinking song as evidenced by the line, ’and who gave he that jolly red nose’. There’ll be quite a few of those on Christmas day, no doubt.
Interspersed with all this jollity are a number of serious songs. Jim Boyes’ Christmas Truce is a beautiful piece about the unofficial ceasefires that took place along the western front around the 25th December 1914. The song is hymn-like but never maudlin or sentimental.
Mary and Gabriel, written by Jo Freya, is a heartfelt song about the Annunciation but told from Mary’s point of view. It’s sung by the writer with a simple piano accompaniment by Barry Coope. The song, which comments on Mary’s lack of a voice in the nativity story, is very affecting.
Coope, Simpson, Fraser and Freya have produced an album that is funny, touching and nostalgic in the best sense of the word. It’s sure to bring pleasure to anyone who is lucky enough to find it in their stocking on Christmas morning.Stephen Witkowski
Released on No Masters on 1st December 2014.
1. Northfields While Shepherds
2. A Christmas Carol
3. Past 3 A-Clock
4. In Praise of Christmas/Sussex Carol
5. ’Tis Now the Season of the Year
6. Green Grow’th the Holly
7. Please Let Me Sleep on Your Doorstep Tonight
8. Float in Dreams
9. Christmas at Sea/Il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant/Branle De L’official
10. Christmas Truce
11. 50 Kw Tree
12. The Owl
13. Mary & Gabriel
14. Spanking Roger
15. Christmas Must Be Tonight